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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the estimated 191,000 other Canadians who will be diagnosed with cancer this year are depending on science and medicine.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the stories about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's cancer diagnosis, many people are talking about his "fight" and his "battle" against the disease and noting his strong personality.

But are these militaristic metaphors really helpful to people across the country who are dealing with various forms of cancer?

I understand the motivation of those who want to encourage patients to listen to their doctors, to do everything they can to maintain good health and also to keep a positive attitude in the face of what must be confusing, painful and daunting.

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But I think we need to find better language to describe those who are remaining positive and focused on their recovery without resorting to battle phrases. When you put too much focus on willpower, you diminish the importance of science and medicine, which is actually what Mr. Ford and the estimated 191,000 other Canadians who will be diagnosed with cancer this year really depend on.

One real problem with these phrases is that if and when someone succumbs to these terrible illnesses, the statement that they "lost the fight" or "the battle with cancer" is unfair and hurtful to the surviving family members. Their death is not because they did not fight hard enough; it is for complex medical reasons beyond their control.

Globe and Mail health reporter Carly Weeks wrote about this when federal NDP leader Jack Layton died of cancer.

In her piece, she says: To those touched directly by cancer, equating the illness with a war against the enemy, fighting an adversary, or suffering in order to survive can diminish understanding of the challenges and complexities faced by patients and their families. … A significant problem is that most of the common words and phrases we use to describe the experiences of people who have been diagnosed with cancer imply that personal will and self-control play a large part in determining who will live or die. To say Mr. Layton lost his fight implies he had a say over his fate."

In the Huffington Post last year, Atif Kukaswadia, a PhD candidate in community health and epidemiology expressed his concern about the negative side to that language of "battling cancer."

While as a society, we do want to "conquer cancer" with fundraising programs and increased research, we should try to avoid too many clichés and talk about real people and their illnesses.

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